Phil Rowley Stillwater Tactics | Fly Fishing Insider Podcast

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Stillwater Fly Fishing Tactics - An In-depth Conversation with Phil Rowley

Transcript Summarization

The Journey of Phil Rowley

Phil Rowley, who immigrated from England to Canada at the age of seven, has had a lifelong fascination with fishing. While he initially fished for coarse fish like Tench, bream, and carp in England, his journey led him to fall in love with fly fishing in Canada. His very first fly-fishing experience was on the Skagit River in Vancouver, and that intense, unfiltered fight with a fish hooked him for life.

 He was particularly drawn to Stillwater fly fishing due to the unique challenges it presents. Unlike river fishing where you can often see where fish might be hiding, lakes are vast and seemingly featureless, making them intimidating for newcomers. However, Rowley embraced this challenge and dedicated himself to understanding every intricate detail from the entomology of the lake life to the techniques needed for successful Stillwater fishing.


A Lifelong Learner

Phil Rowley believes you never stop learning in the world of fly fishing. Initially, the lack of resources and information on Stillwater fishing made his learning journey challenging. He heavily relied on the few available books such as 'The Gilly' and the scant literature that was available from authors like Randall Kaufmann. However, he noted that each experience, whether successful or not, became a lesson. Rowley expressed that one of the most rewarding aspects of fly fishing is the continual opportunity to learn and adapt.


Contributions to the Fly Fishing Community

Rowley has made significant contributions to the fly fishing community. He started tying flies commercially and gradually moved into providing courses on fly tying and fly fishing. He has authored four books, including his most recent, "The Orvis Guide to Stillwater Trout Fishing." With around 110,000 words and nearly 300 pictures, this latest book is a comprehensive guide that he hopes will help many when they venture into Stillwater fly fishing.

Embracing the Details

Rowley takes a very analytical approach to fishing, often diving into the "nerdy" details of why certain things work the way they do. This intricate focus on the minutiae of fly fishing can be credited to his background in entomology, as understanding the food sources in the water was a key part of his fascination with the sport.


The Never-Ending Learning Curve

Despite his expertise, Rowley maintains that the appeal of fly fishing lies in its infinite learning curve. Each outing provides a new lesson, whether it's something about fish behavior, lake dynamics, or even your own equipment. It’s this constant evolution that keeps him engrossed in the sport.


Final Thoughts

Phil Rowley is not just an expert but a fervent student of fly fishing. His journey from the uncertain waters of his early days to becoming a leading voice in Stillwater fly fishing is a testament to his passion and commitment to the sport. With the upcoming Stillwater School, attendees have a golden opportunity to learn from one of the pioneers of Stillwater fishing. Whether you're a seasoned angler looking to fine-tune your skills or a beginner wanting to dive into the world of Stillwater fishing, Phil Rowley's expertise promises a rich, enlightening experience.

Fishing, particularly fly fishing in lakes, is an art and science that combines various elements, from understanding the right equipment to mastering the technique. For example, a critical aspect of fly fishing is the retrieve rate, which must be adapted depending on the fish you're targeting. The feeling of the line going tight when a fish bites can be an exhilarating moment, making the painstaking preparation worth it.

For many, the act of fishing is as simple as dangling a bait under an indicator. However, true enthusiasts know that the technique can be far more nuanced, especially in a challenging technical fishery like for "chronic" or chronomid fishing. The chronomid technique can be so specialized that it has its own guidelines and methods. For instance, in waters 15 feet or less, indicators are generally used to control depth and pace, essential elements that most anglers struggle with. In deeper waters, other methods, such as using a long leader, become more effective. 

The technique you choose often depends on several variables. These include the depth you're fishing at, the weight of the fly, the speed of the retrieve, and the length of the leader. Mastery of these variables requires not only skill but also immense patience. You must allow the fly and leader time to sink, sometimes up to a minute or longer, to achieve the desired depth. There are general guidelines to make this easier, such as starting with a tapered leader around 15 feet in length, to which additional lengths can be added as needed. 

Fly fishing demands keen observational skills, especially in chronic fishing, where subtle clues indicate a fish's bite. Sometimes, the only sign you get is a small straightening of the squiggles in your line on the water's surface. This is where the 'touch' aspect comes in. The takes are subtle and learning to recognize them is crucial for success. 

Apart from the mechanics, there's also an emotional component to fly fishing. When you're on a lake, patience is tested constantly. Whether you're waiting for your fly to sink or for a fish to bite, the periods of inactivity can feel eternal. This kind of fishing is akin to a slow, deliberate dance, demanding precision and grace rather than force and speed. 

So, in essence, fly fishing is a multifaceted sport requiring a blend of technical knowledge, patience, and observational skill. While many might simply ask "what fly are you using?" when someone is catching fish, the truth is that success often lies in a harmonious balance of depth, retrieve, and pattern, or what is referred to as the "DRP." It's not just about the fly but also how you're presenting it. Each method, from using indicators in shallow waters to the long leader technique in deeper areas, offers its own set of challenges and rewards. Thus, fly fishing is not just a hobby but a complex skill set that takes time to master fully.


Mastering the Art of Stillwater Fly Fishing: Insights from Phil Rowley

If you're an angler fascinated by the nuanced art of stillwater fly fishing, particularly when targeting trout in lakes, you'll appreciate the valuable insights shared by Phil Rowley on the Fly Fishing Insider Podcast. Rowley delves deep into techniques, revealing that successful stillwater fishing is not just about having the right fly but involves a holistic approach incorporating depth, retrieve, and pattern.


Understanding Indicators and Depth

For the uninitiated, stillwater fly fishing often involves suspending a fly beneath a floating indicator, a technique also known as "chronic" or "chironomid" fishing. While Rowley acknowledges the effectiveness of indicators, especially in shallow waters less than 15 feet deep, he advocates for versatility. Indicators can simplify two primary challenges: keeping the fly at the desired depth and moving it slowly enough to mimic natural food sources. In lakes, most prey species aren't sprinters; they don't move fast. As a result, fly retrieval has to be painstakingly slow, so slow that if you think you've got it right, you might have to halve the speed again.


The Naked Technique

However, Rowley is equally fond of the 'naked technique,' which uses no indicators. This approach is more suitable for fishing in deeper waters. The 'naked' method focuses on four variables: weight of the fly, speed of the retrieve, depth of the lake floor, and the length of the leader. You can manipulate these variables to achieve the ideal presentation. For example, if the fly is retrieved too quickly, it will rise in the water column, moving away from the desired depth near the lake floor where fish are feeding and feel secure. 

The naked technique demands exceptional patience and touch. The takes are often subtle, perhaps indicated by a slight straightening of the fly line on the water surface. Mastery comes through understanding the 'touch,' recognizing these subtle indicators that a fish is on the line.


The Importance of Leader Length

When it comes to leaders, Rowley often starts with a 15-foot tapered leader and adjusts from there. While most people are accustomed to 9- or 12-foot leaders, longer leaders can make a significant difference in stillwater fishing. They not only add some backbone to help the cast and turnover but also slow down the sink rate, allowing the fly to move through the target zone at a slower pace.


Adjusting for Conditions

Rowley also stresses the need for adaptability. In windy conditions or when the fish are spread out, he recommends using slow-sinking lines instead of long leaders or indicator setups. Slow-sinking lines, along with shorter leaders, offer a more controlled presentation, reducing the chance of tangles and other frustrations. 


The DRP Analogy: Depth, Retrieve, Pattern

According to Rowley, when you're not catching fish, consider three key factors in the following order: Depth, Retrieve, and Pattern (DRP). First, ensure the fly is at the correct depth, usually close to the lake floor. Second, adjust the speed of your retrieve, generally erring on the side of slower movement. And only then should you consider changing the fly pattern.


Learning from Others

Rowley admits that in a group of anglers, the first question usually asked of someone who's catching fish is about the fly pattern. However, this shouldn't be the main focus. Instead, inquire about the depth and retrieve speed they're using and then adapt based on your observations and local conditions. 

In summary, stillwater fly fishing is a technical and nuanced art. Success requires a holistic approach, patience, and a willingness to adapt to conditions and insights gained through experience and observation. Whether you're a beginner or a seasoned pro, applying these tips from Phil Rowley can enhance your stillwater fly fishing endeavors and potentially increase your success on the water.


The Art of Fly Fishing—Strategies and Techniques with Phil Rowley

Fly fishing can be both an exhilarating and meditative experience. During a podcast episode with Phil Rowley, various nuances and tactics of fly fishing in still waters were extensively discussed. Here’s a comprehensive summary to help you grasp the finer points of the art.

Water Clarity Dictates Strategy

Rowley emphasized that water clarity plays a significant role in fly fishing. In clearer waters, fish are less likely to remain stationary below you, which dictates the technique to be used. Typically, fishing in depths of 20 feet or more requires the use of type 6 or type 7 compensated lines. The idea is to have the fly sit about a foot off the bottom.


Engagement to Beat Boredom

Fly fishing can be criticized for being dull at times. Rowley's solution to this is to keep engaged by continually moving the fly through the water column. The key is to find that perfect spot where fish are most likely to take the bait—often close to the bottom.


Tackling and Leaders

Shorter leaders are usually preferred in this method, consisting mainly of two sections—a thicker, stronger diameter line connected to the fly, and a shorter final section. This prevents the risk of damaging the equipment. Multiple flies are usually spaced between 18 to 36 inches apart depending on what you're trying to achieve.


The Excitement of "The Take"

When it comes to experiencing "the take," Rowley describes it as heart-stopping and exhilarating. Whether you’re in a group or flying solo, the thrill never ceases. The speed at which fish can take the fly is phenomenal and unexpected, adding an element of surprise to the experience.


Two-Rod Methodology

Interestingly, using two rods can prove to be advantageous, especially when the wind and currents are favorable. One rod can be set up for dangling while you actively fish with the other. This increases the chances of catching fish.


The Advent of Multiple Flies

Rowley delves into the advantages of fishing with multiple flies, a technique known as "washing line setup." This technique allows the angler to effectively fish different life stages of the same insect, like both the adult and pupal stages, at the same time. It’s particularly effective during fall months when multiple types of insects are hatching.


Attractors and Tactical Advantages

Nowadays, the use of 'attractors'—large, gaudy, and mobile flies—is common. These flies attract fish from a distance, who then often choose to take one of the subtler flies on the line instead. This technique can be particularly effective when the water is teeming with natural insects.


Evolution of Popular Flies

Rowley mentioned the evolving trend of flies like 'boobies,' 'blobs,' and 'fabs,' each with their unique design and fishing applications. Originally popularized in European competitions, these have now found their way into recreational fishing as well. Each fly has its distinct advantages and potential limitations.


The Shared Experience

Rowley concludes by appreciating the social aspect of fly fishing. It's not just about catching fish; it's about solving the day’s challenges as a group or a team, making it a rich, fulfilling experience for all involved.

Fly fishing is not a static activity; it is dynamic and constantly evolving. The methods, the gear, and even the flies are all subject to innovation and change. Phil Rowley's insights serve as a valuable guide for both novices and seasoned fly fishers looking to deepen their understanding and improve their technique.


The Art of Attraction in Fly Fishing 

Fly fishing isn't just about replicating the exact species that fish are feeding on; sometimes it's about playing to their curiosity, territoriality, and aggression. Phil Rowley, an expert fly fisherman, delves deep into the psychology of fish and the strategies involved in attracting them during his appearance on the Fly Fishing Insider Podcast.


Weight, Materials, and the Depth Factor

When it comes to fly fishing, getting the bait to the desired depth quickly can be crucial. Phil uses tungsten beads on his flies to ensure that they sink faster. The material of the flies also plays a significant role. Natural materials tend to absorb water and sink quickly, but synthetic materials can be slow to get to the desired depth. One downside to unweighted flies is that the fish might swallow them too deeply, making catch and release problematic.


Playing the Color Card 

When fishing, Rowley often uses what he calls the "color card," opting for eye-catching colors that match the zooplankton that fish are feeding on. These flies are often larger than the natural prey, in sizes 10 or 12, and come in vivid colors like sunburst, prawn, and tequila, among others. The idea is not to perfectly imitate the prey but to attract attention.


Triggering Responses

Interestingly, fish don't always bite due to hunger. They are curious creatures and may bite a fly out of curiosity or territoriality. Fish can be aggressive and territorial, especially when something invades their space. As fly fishers, it’s not just about imitating nature but also triggering an emotional or instinctual response from the fish.

The Attractor Factor

The concept of using "attractor flies" was also discussed. These are obnoxiously colored and oversized flies that stand out in the water. These flies are meant to elicit a response—whether it's feeding, aggression, or curiosity. An example mentioned was a situation where traditional flies weren't getting much action, but switching to an attractor fly suddenly resulted in multiple catches. It's about exaggerating the size and color of the prey item to trigger a predatory response.


Techniques for Movement 

Rowley shares that the way the fly moves can also be an essential factor. After casting, letting the fly settle, and then giving it a pull can be effective. The pull makes the fly rise and then slowly settle, which can be irresistible to sight-feeding fish like trout.



The podcast serves as a reminder that fly fishing is as much about understanding fish behavior as it is about skill and equipment. From the color and size of the flies to the way they are presented in the water, many factors can trigger a fish to bite. Whether you're a beginner or an experienced angler, there's always something new to learn in the ever-evolving world of fly fishing.


An Expert Perspective from Phil Rowley

Tips on Reading the Lake

One of the biggest challenges in still water fly fishing is 'reading the lake'. Rowley emphasized the importance of preparation and research before even setting foot on the water. He advocates for using resources like Google Earth and bathymetric maps to understand underwater contours and potential fishing spots. Close lines on the map indicate rapid depth changes, while spaced-out lines suggest a more gradual slope—information that can be invaluable when selecting a fishing spot.

Rowley also advised leveraging observations once at the lake. Walk the shoreline, turn over rocks, inspect weed stocks, and even look at spider webs to gauge what type of insects are prevalent. A working knowledge of aquatic entomology can be beneficial but isn’t essential. Observing how an insect moves and what color it is can be sufficient to make a productive fishing plan.


The Human Element

Rowley also emphasized how today's technology has made our lives easier but sometimes at the cost of 'the human element'. For example, he humorously mentioned that he can't remember phone numbers anymore, thanks to smartphones. He also noted that the good old days of jotting down notes on napkins are long gone, replaced by digital note-taking, which while efficient, takes away a bit of the human touch.


The Takeaway

Whether you're a seasoned fly fisher looking to brush up your skills or a beginner interested in taking the first step, Phil Rowley offers a wealth of knowledge. His blend of traditional expertise and embracing new technology makes him a unique figure in the fly fishing world. The upcoming Stillwater School program is an excellent opportunity to learn from one of the pioneers of the sport in a breathtaking setting. 

Learning to fish is not just about casting a line; it's about understanding the intricate balance of nature and leveraging it to your advantage. And there's no one better to guide you through this journey than Phil Rowley.


The Art of Stillwater Fly Fishing: Insights from Phil Rowley

Fly fishing in still waters can seem like a bit of a mystery, especially when compared to the more "dynamic" river and stream fishing. Phil Rowley, a fly fishing veteran and expert in stillwater trout fishing, sheds some light on this topic. In a recent episode of the Fly Fishing Insider Podcast, Rowley dived deep into the strategies that have made him successful.


The Role of Observation

Rowley emphasizes the crucial role of observation. The moment he leaves the landing area, his senses are heightened. Using polarized glasses, he scans both the surface and the depths, looking for signs of life and activity. Whether it's a swimming fish or a hatching insect, each observation is a clue. He pays special attention to water temperature, as it's directly linked to the oxygen content in the water, which in turn is vital for trout's metabolism.


Understanding Trout Behavior

According to Rowley, the ideal water temperature for trout ranges between 50 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit. At this "happy zone," a trout’s metabolism is at its peak. They digest food quickly, eat more, and are generally more active. When temperatures go outside of this range, trout become sluggish and are more concerned with breathing than feeding.

Rowley also points out that trout have three basic needs: comfort, protection, and food. These elements aren't isolated; they often exist in combination. For example, protection could be about the depth of water or the presence of weed beds. Rowley finds that trout prefer depths where light is diffused by rippling water, which offers them a sense of security. 


Locating the "Superstore"

When it comes to food, Rowley advocates putting yourself where the food is. In stillwater settings, this usually means fishing in waters that are 20 feet deep or less. The reason? Photosynthesis, which is crucial for plant growth, has a significant impact only up to these depths. These areas are the “Costco or Walmart Superstores” of the underwater world, where trout come to feed.


Presentation Options

Rowley also highlights that shallower waters offer more presentation options. Whether it's using strike indicators, floating line, or various sinking lines, fly fishers have a wide range of techniques to employ. On the other hand, in deeper waters of 20-30 feet, presentation options are far more limited, often restricting the angler to faster sinking lines.


The Impulse-Driven Trout

Rowley adds humor to the discussion by stating that while anglers often ascribe high intelligence to trout, these fish are largely impulse-driven. “We’re not trying to catch Stephen Hawking here,” he jokes. Trout basically swim, eat, and—if lucky—get to reproduce. 



In summary, stillwater fly fishing is not a game of chance; it's an art form that requires a deep understanding of aquatic ecology, trout behavior, and strategic presentation of the fly. Rowley encapsulates this in a nutshell: when fishing in stillwaters, pay attention, be observant, and always remember that understanding the needs of the trout is the first step in successful fly fishing.


Exploring the Nuances of Fly Fishing

Fly fishing is a sport rich with techniques, locales, and experiences, something Phil Rowley, a seasoned fly fisherman, knows all too well. Rowley recently shared some of his wisdom on the Fly Fishing Insider Podcast, where he delved into everything from fishing hotspots to the influence of weather conditions, to strategies for catching the best fish.


Cross-Border Perspectives on A Good Day of Fishing

Rowley started by noting the surprising differences in what constitutes a 'good day' of fishing between anglers in different regions. While he and his Canadian peers might consider a 40 to 50-fish day par for the course, anglers across the border in the United States are astonished by such numbers, often citing 16 to 20 fish as a more average day.


Techniques That Surprise

When teaching guides in West Yellowstone, Rowley encountered local beliefs about popular fishing methods, such as dragging a Woolly Bugger or using a dry dropper technique. However, Rowley emphasizes different approaches, like mimicking emerging chironomids—a tiny bug that can be extremely effective for luring fish. His techniques often surprise and delight those accustomed to traditional fly fishing practices.


Seasonal Opportunities and Fish Behavior

Rowley is particularly fond of Kevin Lake in August. Unlike local lakes that get too warm, Kevin Lake is situated at about 6,000 feet, offering a refreshing fishing experience. Fish behavior here offers fantastic dry fly opportunities, something not usually experienced on lakes. Fish follow unique feeding patterns: feasting on spot and spinners in the morning and emerging duns later in the day. For Rowley, nothing beats the excitement of hearing a fish snap up a fly from the surface.


The Skill of Casting

A critical part of fly fishing success, according to Rowley, is the accuracy of your cast. While North American fish tend to be more skittish due to frequent angling, he found that the fish in other regions, like British Columbia, are more 'friendly.' Casting into the ripples where you expect a fish to surface next, and seeing the fish poke its nose out to grab the lure, is a rewarding experience.


Lake Fishing Challenges

Many find lake fishing intimidating due to the wide array of variables—where to stand, what boat to use, etc. Rowley acknowledges these challenges but also mentions that lakes can offer unique opportunities. Fishing from the shore can be rewarding but is often restricted due to access issues and natural obstacles like vegetation and trees.


Fishing Around the Globe

Rowley extends his fishing expeditions to Argentina, where he enjoys the 'Stanley Cup of Stillwater fishing.' The lake he frequents boasts rainbow trout weighing between 10 and 15 pounds. This lake is unique due to its rocky and volcanic terrain, unlike the weedy lakes in North America. One of his most memorable experiences involved catching a 22-pound rainbow trout in just three feet of water.


Exploring New Territories

Rowley also touched upon the experience of fishing in foreign lands, citing Argentina as a cultural feast for the senses, with its fantastic food, wine, and camaraderie. However, he did mention that travel restrictions due to current health concerns have made such trips more challenging lately. 

In summary, Phil Rowley's insights serve as a testament to the richness and diversity of experiences that fly fishing can offer. Whether you're an amateur or a seasoned pro, there's always something new to learn, a different technique to try, or a unique locale to explore.


The Versatility of Fly Fishing with Phil Rowley

The Journey of a Fly Fishing Enthusiast

Phil Rowley is a name synonymous with fly fishing, particularly in the still waters of Canada and beyond. Despite having to pass up on trips due to his busy schedule, Rowley's passion for the sport has taken him to nearly every Canadian province and various U.S. states. These trips, often tacked onto his speaking engagements, have provided him with invaluable experiences and insights into local fishing techniques. 


A Toolbox of Techniques

Rowley believes that the principles of fly fishing can be applied universally, albeit with some adjustments to cater to local influences. Whether he’s fishing for pike, walleye, or lake whitefish, his approach largely remains the same, adapted only for the fish’s specific behavior. For instance, he explains that walleyes don't attack the bait; they suck it in, requiring a quick reaction from the angler. His techniques include using sounders to locate fish, choosing between fishing indicators and a "naked" technique, and quick adaptation to make sure he's always ahead of the game. 


Observations and Learnings

According to Rowley, fly fishers can also learn a great deal from conventional anglers. He emphasizes the importance of understanding how conventional anglers go after fish, whether using crankbaits, vertical fishing, or other methods, and how those techniques can be adapted for fly fishing. This versatile approach enables him to not only fish for different species but also to apply techniques interchangeably, ensuring a successful catch.



In a nutshell, Phil Rowley is not just a fly fisher but a true ambassador for the sport, continually evolving, teaching, and contributing to the community he loves.

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 Christian Bacasa, Host of the Fly Fishing Insider Podcast

By Christian Bacasa
Host of the Fly Fishing Insider Podcast

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